Tradition

Penelope

Loreena McKennitt

Tradition

   

 

Portion of Wisdom, with Light and Sound, located above the entrance of 30 Rockefeller Center (GE Building), New York City

Lee Lawrie

Photograph by Jaime Ardiles-Arce

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RocCt-LeeLawrie-Wisdom.jpg

 

  

The song “Penelope” tells of an aspect of the story of Odysseus that Homer left out, it imagines what Penelope was thinking while waiting for Odysseus to return home. It is a song that has its roots in the “Classical Tradition.” There was a review recently, “Glories of Classicism,” of a new book titled The Classical Tradition. Stephen Greenblatt and Joseph Leo Koerner wrote the article. Greenblatt also wrote an article, “Call of the Wild,” on the Shakespearean influences found in the children’s stories of Maurice Sendak. What these articles underscore is the impact of the Classical Tradition on not only modern culture, but the various threads throughout history that have been woven together to create modern culture. The review of The Classical Tradition identifies commonplace things, like the asterisk (“*”) that have their origins in some corner of the classical world. I remember reading a few years ago about the origin of the “&” symbol. It is made by running together the two letters “E” and “t,” which spell “Et.” And “et” is Latin for “and.” The symbol in fact is not a symbol at all, but the conjunction itself. What these suggest is that the classical tradition surrounds us in some of the most mundane aspects of our culture. 

 

The photograph above is of a relief panel over the entrance to the Rockefeller Center. The image is fashioned in an Art Deco style, the “Modern Art” of the day, but its subject evokes the Judea-Christian tradition with its quote from Isaiah, “Wisdom and Knowledge shall be the stability of thy time” and an image that suggests the prophet directly above. The figure, though, is also Zeus like and offers, perhaps a connection to classical Greek and Roman Mythology as well. In the lines and colors of the Art Deco movement is found the most ancient of classical and religious traditions. 

    

One example of the influence of the ancient and modern, the classical tradition and the contemporary view is found in the novel Frankenstein. At one point in the novel the creature finds a trunk that has fallen into the road. He opens it up and among other things he finds three books, Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther. Each represents a different age in the development of human thought, the Classical period and the Classical Education, the Renaissance and 17th century reimagining of the classical tradition, and Romanticism and contemporary view of the world. It is worth noting that both Classical and Renaissance influences find their way into this last “age.” Percy Shelley wrote a narrative poem with the Prometheus, a character from Greek Mythology, as the central character, William Blake did illustrations for Paradise Lost and devoted one of his narrative poems to Milton and Milton’s influence. Keats wrote poems devoted to Greek statuary, pottery, and a Renaissance translation of Homer.

  

But each book also represents a different aspect of human development. Plutarch’s Lives is integral to the creature’s intellectual and moral development, he learns from this book both to importance of rational thought and of character; what it means to be noble and virtuous. From Goethe’s Werther is integral to his emotional development. From this book he learns what it means to experience emotion and the important role passion plays in a rich and full life and its importance to experience fully the beautiful and the sublime. From Milton and Paradise Lost he learns about himself; what it means to be a created creature and the obligation of the creator to what he or she has created. He learns from this book self-awareness and begins to understand himself as a unique human being. 

  

These three books represent these three stages in human development and underscore the importance of tradition, especially a literary and artistic tradition, to the full development of the individual. Whitman and Emerson in their poems and essays address the importance of the past and knowledge of the past to the creation of a rich and productive present, that to make a real mark on the present we need to know the influences that produced the present. Each generation as it recreates the world in which it lives builds off what came before.

  

 

 

The New Zollhof

Frank Gehry

Photograph by Filippo from Milano, Italy

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:D%C3%BCsseldorf,_Medienhafen.jpg

   

  

The photographs above and below are of a very modern building and a fairly ancient one. The Leaning Tower of Pisa is a product of the Italian Renaissance and the return to Classical motifs that were at the heart of the Renaissance. The building by Frank Gehry evokes the Leaning Tower with leaning towers of its own that suggest the architecture of an earlier age while at the same time with its curved lines and undulating surfaces suggesting the architecture of an animated cartoon city. The building is on the one hand modern, as was the tower in Pisa when it was built, while at the same time alluding to a long architectural tradition. This is often how it is with tradition, it is a part of who we are whether we acknowledge it or not. The song tells an ancient story with a modern sensibility. The relief sculpture reminds us that the ancient and the modern often live together in our imagination and often shape the directions our imaginations take. The buildings remind us that we want the spaces in which we live and work to be beautiful and that our ideas of beauty have ancient antecedents. 

  

 

 

Leaning Tower of Pisa

Guglielmo (According to Giorgio Vasari)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Leaning_tower_of_pisa_2.jpg

  

  

The Greenblatt and Koerner article reflects on the difficulty we have with tradition and with how it is labeled. The Classical Tradition represented in the book under review is the Greek and Roman classical tradition, but it acknowledges that other parts of the world also have their classical traditions, that are each unique and that form the cultural touchstones of the people that evolved out of those traditions. These traditions play a significant role in shaping the identity of the people that belong to those traditions. There are areas of overlap between traditions but there are also areas of significant difference. It is one of the struggles that we have that people who lived a few centuries ago did not have to struggle with so much. 

 

Once upon a time a person could grow up in the West without being confronted with the traditions of the East, though, of course, these other traditions could be sought out. I remember being surprised the first time I read Thoreau’s book Walden to discover so many references to the philosophies of India, China, and other parts of Asia. I thought the East was something we had discovered for the first time in the 1970’s because the culture of the day presented it as a new and novel thing. But with communications being what they are today it really is not possible, or at least it is not easy, to live oblivious to the traditions of other parts of the world and modern culture is in more and more ways becoming a world culture. As can be seen in the photograph below, the same Art Deco movement that employed Biblical and Classical Greek and Roman motifs in the image above also absorbed into itself, when it went to India, the cultural motifs of Asia as well. The two “guardians” at the front door of this building also suggest, to me, the guardians at the entrance to that part of Middle Earth that the Fellowship of the Ring visited in the recent film of that story. 

  

 

 

“New India Assurance Building”

Master, Sarhe and Bhuta, with N.G. Parsare, 1936

Photograph by Colin Rose

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:NewIndiaAssuranceBdg.jpg

 

  

It ought to be possible to enjoy and appreciate the cultural heritages of other parts of the world without abandoning or trivializing our own. Each generation retells the stories it inherits from its past in their own way, the traditions must be personalized if they are to survive. This does not mean we have to embrace those aspects of the tradition that seem out of step with the modern world, but it is difficult to find our footing at all if we abandon all tradition. There is a reason why stories resonate and live on after their time, and not all stories live. Most stories vanish with the generation that created them, but each generation produces stories that become a part of that string of narratives that finds its way back to Homer and Gilgamesh and the Torah, and all the others. Paul Harris asked in a recent article, “Why Is Superman Still So Popular?” He is a comic book character. The language with which his stories are told is not “elevated” by any stretch of the word. The artwork is not exemplary, though it is fun to look at. But the character himself is Herculean and for that reason he resonates, he is a hero of our age and his story does not need to be well written to resonate. We want heroes; we need heroes. That is why the medieval knight becomes the cowboy and why the cowboy becomes the superhero.

  

 

 

“Elgin Marble Friezes”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_marbles_frieze.jpg

 

  

The photographs above and below are of two of the Elgin Marbles. These marbles have been at the center of a dispute for many, many years between the governments of England and of Greece. To who do these cultural artifacts belong. They are clearly Greek in origin and depict characters and events from Greek mythology, but that mythology and that culture have become a part of the English culture. Brutus, the Roman who allegedly founded Britain was a direct descendant of Aeneas who escaped Troy and eventually founded Rome. This in itself is probably not a strong enough claim for England to deprive Greece of a significant piece of its culture, but it is enough to create a desire to own and to keep the art. Keats wrote of these marbles:

  

 

On Seeing the Elgin Marbles

My spirit is too weak—mortality

   Weighs heavily on me like unwilling sleep,

   And each imagined pinnacle and steep

Of godlike hardship tells me I must die

Like a sick eagle looking at the sky.

   Yet ’tis a gentle luxury to weep

   That I have not the cloudy winds to keep

Fresh for the opening of the morning’s eye.

Such dim-conceived glories of the brain

   Bring round the heart an undescribable feud;

So do these wonders a most dizzy pain,

   That mingles Grecian grandeur with the rude

Wasting of old time—with a billowy main—

   A sun—a shadow of a magnitude.

 

  

These marbles may not be English but they certainly touched Keats. One of his best known poems is on another Greek artifact, an urn. There is something unquantifiable in the way a work of art, from whatever tradition, touches the human heart and the human spirit. This is why it endures and will probably always endure. There may be those that see in cultural traditions, both their own and those others, a threat to something they believe and they go about trying to dismantle or trivialize the culture. But a tradition that has lasted for thousands of years is not easily flung aside. 

  

 

 

“Elgin Marbles East Pediment”

Unknown

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Elgin_Marbles_east_pediment.jpg

 

  

There was a recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, “The Quest for Permanent Novelty,” that speaks of the human desire to create a work of art that creates a moment of awe that lasts forever; a work of art that can be experienced each time with the same enthusiasm and wonder with which it was experienced the first time. I was told in high school that no one today could experience Hamlet for the first time, that the story is too well known and too much a part of who we are that even our first reading or viewing of the play is a re-visitation. And I suppose there is truth to this. But the first reading of a story or the first exposure to any work of art is rarely the first “experience” of that work of art. The first time I heard the opera Don Giovanni I wanted to run out of the room (I couldn’t because I was in college in a music appreciation course). But there was a first time that I heard this opera and was touched and mesmerized by it and that, for me, is my first experience, the first time my eyes (and ears) were opened to the majesty of this music. That experience is probably a “one time” experience for that work, though subsequent experiences with this opera have also been deeply moving and well worth the time invested in listening to it. And it is not that these subsequent hearings of the opera do not bring new revelations; there is something new to be found with each hearing. But these hearings do not produce the same kind of alchemy that the first hearing produced. 

 

The article suggests that when we are enraptured by a work of art, time stands still, we are oblivious to its passage and it is this “stopping of time” that we crave and that we want the work to produce each time we encounter it. But of course it can’t. Time won’t stand still. Michael W. Clune, the author of the article, discusses Proust’s view of art:

  

But perhaps art can do something other than present an object for our experience. Perhaps it can transform the subject of our experience. “The only true voyage, the only bath in the Fountain of Youth,” he continues, “would be not to visit strange lands but to possess other eyes, to see the universe through the eyes of another.” Marcel thinks that we have the ability, when studying some works of art, to identify with, to empathize with, the creator’s thoughts, feelings, perceptions. Art can function as a special kind of communication; and what is communicated, he suggests, is the way the world appears to the artist.

    

And it is in “getting inside” the artist’s mind that time is truly transformed and the world is truly changed. Everything is made new not because everything is new but because we look at everything through “new eyes.” But the real value of art, according to the article, is in what it teaches about time and how we experience it. The article suggests the importance of “slowing the clock” a bit if we are to live fully. We experiment with stopping time, and our experiments always end in failure. But it is a failure that brings its own pleasure and comfort. It is good to stop the clock for a time, but not forever. 

 

Clune also looks at how the one place where “art” succeeds at stopping time is in Orwell’s Oceana in 1984 and it is a horrible thing. It is the dream of tyrants to control what the people think and to regulate their experiences with art and literature. Ursula Le Guin in an article on reading, “Staying Awake,” concludes:

 

So why don’t the corporations drop the literary publishing houses, or at least the literary departments of the publishers they bought, with amused contempt, as unprofitable? Why don’t they let them go back to muddling along making just enough, in a good year, to pay binders and editors, modest advances and crummy royalties, while plowing most profits back into taking chances on new writers? Since kids coming up through the schools are seldom taught to read for pleasure and anyhow are distracted by electrons, the relative number of book-readers is unlikely to see any kind of useful increase and may well shrink further. What’s in this dismal scene for you, Mr. Corporate Executive? Why don’t you just get out of it, dump the ungrateful little pikers, and get on with the real business of business, ruling the world?

 

Is it because you think if you own publishing you can control what’s printed, what’s written, what’s read? Well, lotsa luck, sir. It’s a common delusion of tyrants. Writers and readers, even as they suffer from it, regard it with amused contempt.

 

There have always been, and probably always will be, people who will preserve the stories, keep the traditions alive. One cannot say that every great book that some tyrant has tried to suppress has survived in spite of the tyrant’s efforts, there are probably a great many great books that have been silenced, but no tyrant has, so far, succeeded in stifling “the classical tradition” in its entirety and it always comes back to haunt them and delight the rest of us, at least those of us that have a mind for such delights.

 

   

How Movies Teach Manhood

Colin Stokes

TED Talks

 

  

The video clip talks about the power of stories and the ability of a story to shape the people we become. The two stories Colin Stokes devotes the most time to are the films The Wizard of Oz and Star Wars. Both of these stories revolve around the conflict between good and evil. They suggest it is not enough to confront evil, but that this confrontation has to happen in the right way. I do not know if The Wizard of Oz is indeed a better film than Star Wars or that its message is healthier, but I do think Stokes raises important points about the nature of conflict, of wisdom, and of leadership. The motifs in these are classic, they tell in different ways stories we have been telling throughout most of human history. The names change, the vehicles used to get around are different, but the basic issues are the same. The characters, events, and themes are archetypal. There are principles that must be defended; there are actions that are clearly wrong. We always have to make choices about where we stand in relation to the conflicts of our day. 

  

 

 

Psyche revived by the kiss of Love

Antonio Canova

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Psyche_revived_Louvre_MR1777.jpg

 

  

The statue is of Cupid and Psyche, but it contains elements of “Sleeping Beauty” and “Beauty and the Beast” (though this is an angelic beast). There is a similar “Sleeping Beauty” story found in Wagner’s opera Siegfried,” where Siegfried awakens the sleeping Brunhilde. It is not likely that these stories ever had much contact with each other, that the original tellers of these tales were familiar with other earlier tales that told a similar story. It is probably that the similarities between stories arise out of something that lives within the human psyche that needs the nourishment these stories offer; that there is perhaps something sacramental about them (and stories in general), that they are visible signs of an invisible grace.

  

 

 

“Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US”

Pablo Picasso

Photograph by J. Crocker

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:2004-09-07_1800x2400_chicago_picasso.jpg

 

 

   

 

On Happiness with a Classical Twist

Vespers, Op. 37 – “Come, Let Us Worship”

Sergi Rachmaninov_

USSR Ministry Of Culture Chamber Choir


On Happiness with a Classical Twist


RedSquareSaintBasile.jpg

The Cathedral of Intercession of the Virgin on the Moat (St. Basil’s Cathedral)

Photograph by Christophe Menebeouf

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:RedSquare_SaintBasile_(pixinn.net).jpg

 

Even someone without religious convictions can appreciate, I think, the irony of a choir representing an atheistic state singing sacred music. Of course the music is beautiful and one need not be religious to appreciate the beauty of the music. Stephen Jay Gould, the author and Harvard professor of Evolutionary Biology used to take part in an annual performance of Hayden’s oratorio The Creation. This too is a beautiful piece of music based on the book of Genesis, and, though not religious, Gould took great delight (or so he said to Christopher Lydon on at least one occasion) in performing it. There is, of course, great happiness to be gotten from listening to great music, reading great stories, looking at great art, and all the other cabinets of the classical tradition. The photograph is of St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square in Moscow. To me it seems out of keeping with the image I have of Russia. When I think of Russia I think of a very cold place and its literature often evokes a tragic people (though this is by no means the same as a humorless people). The colors of the cathedral are bright and they are vibrant and they make me smile. I believe it was created with that intention.

A friend of mine was reading Crime and Punishment by Fydor Dostoevsky a few years ago. She was in the middle and was finding it a very moving but a very sad book. I told her that much of the book was sad, but that it ended happily. I do not think many think the ending of Crime and Punishment a happy one; my friend did not. But I think it is happy. Albert Camus in his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” tells us, after pointing out that Sisyphus’s life is a cycle of anguish, forlornness, and despair, that we must imagine Sisyphus happy.

If this is so, how much more happy must Raskolnikov be. He is a man who has committed a heinous crime. He is a man who appears through most of the novel to be devoid of conscience. He evokes for me in his intensity the line from Yeats “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” He finds, though, at the end of the novel, redemption and forgiveness. He finds peace with himself, his world, and his God. He accepts responsibility for his actions and he is sent to Siberia, one of the harshest, most forlorn locations on the planet. Yet he goes into this harsh physical environment at peace with himself and no longer fighting the much harsher and more relentless demons of his mind and spirit, of his inner self. In addition, he goes into this exile with the woman he loves.


IvanBilibinBuyan.jpg

Buyan

Ivan Bilibin

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Ivanbilibin.jpg


Granted, just as Cinderella, though we are told she lived happily ever after with her prince, must have had moments of conflict with her beloved in the process of that happily ever after. No doubt Raskolnikov and Sonya had their moments of tension as well, but there is no reason to believe they did not live happily every after. Also, for all its civilized refinements and comforts, St. Petersburg has its own impediments to happiness. The issue of happiness is an important one in the novel. Does it rest in our ambitions, our self-image or does it live somewhere else? Does happiness depend on external circumstance or does it come from within us? There are other issues raised in the book, of course, but I think for our time, the idea of where happiness is found and what it proceeds from is an important question. It is one of the questions humans hope to find answered in the books that they read. The painting above is of Buyan, a mythical place, a kind of paradise. It is a place of fairy tales. Neither Siberia nor St. Petersburg are such a place, but on the other hand, perhaps, Buyan and the other earthly paradises of myth, folklore, and story are more of an inner than an outer reality and to a certain extent stories help us to find that inner reality.

There was an essay in the Los Angeles Times recently by James M. Cain (author of hard boiled detective novels like The Postman Always Rings Twice). The essay is titled “Paradise” and it looks at how California in the 1930’s was portrayed in advertising as a paradise. Cain considers issues like truth in advertising, but more importantly he considers what makes any place, not just Southern California, a paradise. The essay finds much in Southern California that ought to make it a paradise, a “Buyan,” but like St. Petersburg in Dostoyevsky’s novel it takes more than creature comforts and cultivated society to make a paradise and, considering Raskolnikov’s Siberian destination, more than sunshine, warmth, and a day at the beach as well.

Great Expectations was recently voted, by readers of The Guardian, (“Great Expectations voted readers’ favourite Dickens novel”) Dickens’ best novel. This, too, is a book about a man looking for happiness in many of the wrong places who eventually comes to find a bit of it. But like many of us he has to learn it in a very difficult way. Though we may not ever have had Pip’s expectations or Raskolnikov’s demons we understand, and hopefully empathize, with their struggles. Raskolnikov is especially difficult to like. His crime is a brutal one, his self-justifications are very troubling, and his behavior throughout the novel is very hard to forgive. But at the end of the book, I find myself drawn to his character. In some ways Raskolnikov is a kind of Macbeth in reverse. We begin by seeing Macbeth as likeable, as having remarkable qualities and a potential for greatness. We end by seeing him as something of a monstrosity. Raskolnikov is villainous at the outset but by the story’s end he wins our empathy and we care about what happens to him and want him to be well.


Parnaso.jpg

The Parnassus (detail of Dante, Homer, and Virgil)

Raphael

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Parnaso_09.jpg


There was an article in The New York Review of Books, “Do the Classics Have a Future?” by Mary Beard, a classics professor at Cambridge University. She makes the point that classics have been eulogized and declared dead on a fairly regular basis over the centuries. Jonathan Swift wrote a short story called “The Battle of the Books” that focused on the conflict between the classical tradition and the upstart modernists of his day. Many of the moderns that Swift found wanting have gone on to find their place in the “classical canon” of Western Literature but most of the classical canon of Swift’s day remains intact. The books may be difficult to understand at times, their characters and concerns may seem strange to us, at least they probably will if they are not properly introduced, but if understood these books continue to speak to us and their characters and concerns are found not be as odd as they first appeared. Beard also points out that the classics were written in what are now dead languages, or, as is the case with Chaucer or Dante, a language that no longer resembles the vernacular of our day no matter how vernacular the languages were in their own day. This is what language does, it grows, it develops, it changes.

Beard suggests that one of the better modern translations of The Iliad was done by Christopher Logue who knows no Greek, but has retold the story, using various translations as reference points, in a modern style and idiom. She and others have found Logue’s poetry to be very moving. It has been dramatized and performed successfully suggesting there is something in this story that still resonates. Stephen Mitchell has just in the past month or so come out with another modern translation of The Iliad. Why such fuss over such an old book if no reads it anymore? The answer is, of course, that people do read it, and will probably go on reading it for quite some time.

One of my “History of the English Language” books when I was in college was called In Forme of Speche is Chaunge. It was a collection of readings from different periods n the growth and development of the English Language, from it’s earliest written forms to its most modern and the earliest bore little resemblance to the latest. Because language is constantly changing books written in other languages have to be constantly retranslated, because an 18th century translation, for example, of a book like The Iliad will present difficulties to the modern English reader. I remember while reading Spenser’s Faerie Queene that for the English reader there were advantages to reading someone like Dante who is always retranslated into the current form of the language, but with Spenser I had to struggle through a language that was a bit anachronistic when it was written and was even more anachronistic to a 20th century reader like myself. Still, I believed at the time and still believe Spenser was worth the time I invested in him.


Trojan Women

Cinerama

Michael Cacoyannis, Director


The play, Trojan Women, on which this film was based, was written by the Greek playwright Euripides in the 5th century B. C. It is set even earlier in the Trojan War, the subject of Homer’s epic The Iliad mentioned above. This film version was made in the 1970’s and was seen as a commentary on the Vietnam War. Were it to be done again today there are conflicts aplenty about which it would have much to say. The scene in the clip focuses on a young child taken from his mother and killed. The child’s parentage makes him a threat to the Greek occupation. Easier to kill him now instead of later. The play at the very least reminds us that the horrors of war have always been seen as horrors. When Euripides wrote the play it was seen as a commentary on the Peloponnesian Wars and the behavior of the Athenians in that war. Like Swift’s Gulliver in the conflict between the Lilliputians and the Blefuscans, Euripides did not want to play a part in the subjugation of a free people.

Happiness often has a social component. It could be argued that Euripides wrote his play because the behavior of the society of his day impinged upon his happiness. It is difficult for a conscientious people to be happy when the behavior of the society in which they live disturbs their conscience. It is generally true that the majority of the people in a society, especially a free society, are relatively content. But at what cost is that contentment purchased? And if that cost is largely born by others, how easy is it to ignore the cost? Reading stories, even the classics, will not make one wise or virtuous in and of itself. But these books often raise the issues that a people of conscience ought to consider.

Swift once said of satire that it “is a kind of glass, wherein beholders do generally discover everybody’s face but their own.” The problem with reading, even when that reading is in the wisest and most revealing of books, is that we often take only from them what we wish to take and leave the rest alone. Often it is the bit that is left alone that is essential for us to comprehend. Raskolnikov ended happily because he allowed himself to be changed. We all are shaped by history and we all have a history. One of the lessons that stories teach us is that all change begins with individuals and that to change a society we often need to begin by changing ourselves. It is often in these changes that happiness is found.


 

GyzisHistoria.jpg

 

Historia

Nikolaos Gyzis

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gyzis_006_(Ηistoria).jpeg

Reading by the Book


“I’ll Never Forget the Day I Read a Book”
Jimmy Durante

Reading by the Book

Library of Alençon
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bibliotheque_alencon_670px.jpg

There is in Durante’s song an attitude towards reading that reflects the attitude of many today, especially those who are in the process of receiving an education. The song is from the 1940’s, as near as I can tell, which suggests that unfriendly attitudes towards books and reading is not a new thing. Mark Twain in his definition of a classic (“A classic is something that everybody wants to have read and nobody wants to read”) captured a similar sentiment.

A book published last year, How to Talk About Books You Haven’t Read by Pierre Bayard takes this idea a step further by instructing us how to sound knowledgeable about books we have not only not read but have no real desire to read, while also recognizing that there is an image that attaches to a well read person that many who are not well read would like to project. Andre Agassi sold tennis shoes by telling us, “image is everything”, though he probably did not say it first. And he cultivated the image of a champion long before he became successful at actually winning major tournaments. So why is it that so many people do not want to read but want the circles in which they move to think they do?

Inscription regarding Tiberius Claudius Babillus of Rome (d. 56 CE) which confirms that the Library of Alexandria must have existed in some form in the first century AD.”Forschungen in Ephesos”, Vol. III, Vienna 1923, p.128.
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Alexandria_Library_Inscription.jpg

This inscription from the first century makes a reference to the ancient Library at Alexandria. It was destroyed on three separate occasions and on all but the last occasion rebuilt. It is said to be the first library that aspired to assemble a serious collection of books and actively sought out books from all parts of the then known world. To this day most communities in America recognize the importance of having a town library, though the library is often one of the first institutions to lose funding when the economy becomes troublesome.

I live a few miles from one of the oldest libraries in the country, The Boston Public Library. It is an impressive place to visit. It is not just a collection of books, but of sculpture and painting as well. There is a collection of murals by John Singer Sargent that have recently been restored among other exhibits in the library that attest to its value as more than a book depository. The New York City Public Library has a cottage industry of sorts accumulating lists of facts and information contained in its collection and publishing them in books under their imprimatur.

If the culture seems to care so little for books why does it go to such lengths to accumulate them and make them available to people, especially if people do not want to read them? Is it just so people can sound credible when they claim to have read a book they have never owned? I think that in spite of what some people say, including many students who do not seem to be personally interested in books, there is a belief that books are important to a culture and that someone should read them. Samuel Goldwyn once said “I read part of it all the way through.” And the parts that he read were turned into some impressive films. I think perhaps this attitude pervades aspects of the culture, that for many it is enough to have read a page or two to get the flavor of a book, they are just not hungry enough for the complete meal.

Part of the blame for this is probably public education that requires everyone to get an education whether they want it or not. Not everyone aspires to be literate, though I believe in the mission of the public schools that encourages everyone to be literate and that the process converts many. But if public schools too rigorously maintain a high academic standard those without academic aspirations will be lost. But to fail to maintain a standard trivializes the whole enterprise. A middle ground of sorts needs to be found that preserves a meaningful standard while providing a path through the process for those that are not interested in the standard. Ideally those that lack interest would be won over, but I am not sure that is possible to win over everyone. It seems that at the heart of the public schools is this compromise between standards and student interest and how far the compromise can go before the diplomas the nation’s schools award lose their value.

There was a discussion this week in a social network for English teachers English Companion. The name of the discussion was “The Difference Between Good Literature and Books We Like to Read.” I cannot link to the actual discussion because you have to be a member to gain access, but do feel free to join and check it out. The gist of the discussion focused on what books should form the curriculum and whether there is a place in the curriculum for the books students like. I do not think students need a whole lot of instruction on the books they already like and in my experience it is as much the analysis of a text that students resist as the books themselves and if I were to introduce more current and popular fiction I would probably be criticized for analyzing it to death, which I am sure I would do because as an English teacher I love analyzing texts to death.

The cover art of the novel The Name of the Rose.http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:The_Name_of_the_Rose.jpg

A book about books that I thoroughly loved when it came out about ten or so years ago was The Name of the Rose. It combined a love of books, with a medieval setting and a good detective story. Who could ask for more? Even the detective in the story evoked Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite detectives. But what I thoroughly enjoyed was the labyrinthine library with its vast collection of books, including one by Aristotle that has since disappeared from the face of the earth. There is also a sentiment on the part of certain characters in the story that books are dangerous things and cannot be entrusted to everyone. I think sometimes that one of the unintended consequences of public education has been that by making books available to all the hunger for books has been quenched. There is something subversive that is appealing to many about doing something that has been forbidden or deemed unhealthy by those in authority.

I think reading is important. All reading. I think more information is gotten from reading an article in the newspaper than is gotten from watching a summary on the nightly news or reading the blurbs on Netscape or MSN when we open our web browsers. I think there is also a broader spectrum of coverage in a newspaper. The paper does not have to be read off sheets of newsprint, it can be read online (I just got an iPod Touch that lets me read books and newspapers and even instruction manuals online wherever I go). It is not the venue in which the reading is done but the reading itself.

I want to introduce students to the wonders of great literature as was done for me, but I also understand that like solving the Riemann hypothesis, it is only those who already posses an interest, or are susceptible to the temptation to cultivate an interest that are going to be won over. As an English teacher I am not only passing the wonders of the language on to the next generation of English teachers but also to the next generation of scientists, mathematicians, and carpenters whose interests lie in different directions. I do not remember much of my high school biology, but I imagine I would remember significantly more if I had gone on to become a Biologist instead of an English teacher.

84 Charing Cross RoadBrooks Films and Columbia Pictures

Many find this movie overly chatty because all that really takes place in the film are conversations, through the mails, about books. The hunt for books, the nature of books, whole works verses abridgements and the like. But anyone who appreciates a passion for books will find that passion comes through the dialogue in this film. I also like the film because like the book collector in the film, Helene Hanff, I am captivated by British Literature. As a result I could identify personally with most of the authors that are mentioned.

It is this passion that cannot be taught. I can share the passion I have and that passion might be a bit contagious, but for someone who has never experienced this passion for the written word it may not resonate very much. I think most of my students have books that have deeply moved them and they will probably go on to read books that resemble the books they have enjoyed. I am not certain there is a decline in the number of people, as a percentage of the population, who read classic literature or the kinds of modern books that will one day be classic literature. I imagine that as a percentage of the population those moved by language are probably comparable to those moved by quantum physics or evolutionary biology. But whatever the numbers actually reveal there will be some that got so excited the day they read a book that they rushed out and read another and others for whom it will be a fond memory of something they did once upon a time.